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Not a one-handed read: Anticipating ‘Bat Pussy’ (1973) on Valentine’s Day

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Bijou Film Board Presents: Bat Pussy

FilmScene — Thursday, Feb. 14 at 11 p.m.

‘Bat Pussy’ brings porno to FilmScene for Valentine’s Day. — video still

Early cinema audiences were drawn to mere movement on-screen. It wasn’t the baby in Lumière’s Baby’s Meal (1895) that held the gaze, but wind gusting through trees. We could pinpoint the precise moment a horse’s four hooves left the ground. We could flee in fear from an approaching train. And we could see bodies: leaving factories, dancing, clothed or unclothed, captured in the quotidian or in the erotic.

This, however, is an essay not on the erotic, but on the pornographic: Reader discretion is advised. Lest I flirt too much with formalities, let me declare that this article, and writer, are in favor of the upcoming pornographic Valentine’s Day screening Bat Pussy (1973), dubbed the “worst porno” of all time, brought to you by the University of Iowa’s Bijou Film Board and FilmScene.

While it is now popular knowledge that, for example, actress Linda Lovelace was repeatedly abused during her relationship with production manager Chuck Traynor on the set of Deep Throat, Bijou is determined to create a safe-sex atmosphere on Valentine’s Day.

“Bijou is proud to present the XXX film Bat Pussy in the name of sex positivity and education on campus, as well as opening a dialogue about sex in cinema,” says Tristen Ives, Bijou’s executive director. “We understand the history of XXX films are far too violent against women and people of color while simultaneously non-inclusive. With this event, we hope to discuss the spectrum of sexplotation. We make this event accessible by it being a free event for UI students to promote cinema as an educational tool, while also making a fun learning environment.”

Not only will attendees be able to get a free Bijou condom or dental dam, but Bijou will also partner with the Emma Goldman Clinic to provide information about healthy, consensual sex.

(Trailer is NSFW)

The female body is often the locus of all attention, anxiety and meaning-making in heterosexual pornography, as film historian Linda Williams suggests in her book Hard Core (1989), writing that “the woman’s ability to fake the orgasm that the man can never fake seems to be at the root of all the genre’s attempts to solicit what it can never be sure of: the out-of-control confession of pleasure, a hard-core ‘frenzy of the visible’.”

It is this “frenzy of the visible” that titillates and fascinates. It is not only comedian Joe Bob Briggs’s question for Lovelace, “how does she do it?,” but also “how can I see it?” that drives the curious consumer of pornographic material. As feminist critic B. Ruby Rich flatly elucidates, “Pornography is a way to talk about sex.”

And to talk about sex, in all its pluralities of meaning and power dynamics, is a conversation worth having. Not only can we not divorce sex and bodies in motion from cinema’s origins, we cannot censor ourselves from the realities of one of the most popular high-grossing genres.

Williams, one of the leading theorists on pornography, writes that “in stag films, as well as later hard-core moving-image pornography, sexual urges trump the prohibitions that govern polite society. To the extent that sexual urges in pornography tend to overcome the usual divisions that separate classes, races, and even species, they may seem subversive … But this does not mean that the obstacles that separate genders, classes, and races (and even species) are not also reasserted, often in insidious ways.”

While Williams appreciates and accepts the role pornography plays in moving image culture, she is not impervious to problems regarding representation, whether it be race, gender, class and the like.

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Pornography didn’t rear its proverbial head with the popularization and commercialization of Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat in 1972, nor with Russ Meyer’s softcore dalliances in the ’50s and ’60s. Williams’ Kinsey Archive talk highlights stag films from the 1920s and ’30s (including Getting His Goat and Bring ‘em Back Nude), an archive where, she says, “no item is too obscene, too ridiculous, too rare to be excluded.”

‘Bat Pussy’ — video still

Discussing the decision to screen an XXX-rated title on Valentine’s Day, FilmScene Programming Director Rebecca Fons explains, “In FilmScene’s nearly five years curating the Late Shift at the Grindhouse, we’ve showcased groundbreaking cult and horror classics. The presentation of sex on screen and the body on the big screen are both still unfortunately so taboo, but we can’t talk about the history of film in America, and certainly not Grindhouse film, without including XXX titles and recognizing the impact they had on the industry.”

Ross Meyer, FilmScene’s head projectionist, facilities manager and Grindhouse director, adds, “Many of the movie palaces that have undergone extensive restorations, revitalizing their neighborhoods and communities, from the New Amsterdam on 42nd Street, New York City to the Art Theater in the Midwest college town of Champaign, Illinois, would long ago met the wrecking ball if not for their time as profitable adult movie houses in the ’70s and ’80s.”

In the essay “Antiporn: Soft Issue, Hard World (Not a Love Story),” Rich observes that “in a society that has failed to distinguish between sexuality and pornography, the antiporn movement is a perfect vehicle for lumping all feminists together into one posse, a bunch of sex cops out to handcuff the body politic’s cock.”

I, too, have no such ambition to suggest that we approach pornography from a place of pure homogeneity, wielding handcuffs galore. Bat Pussy may not be a love story, but it’s not a soft issue, either. I’m taking my hands out of my raincoat, placing my handcuffs to the side; I’m here for the same reason I always come to the movies: the frenzy of the visible, the questions those images raise and the conversations that ensue. And at a Bijou screening, I know that care under-girds those conversations.

Like Maggie Nelson’s opening to The Argonauts, “‘What’s your pleasure?’ you asked, then stuck around for an answer,” Bijou and FilmScene are attending to our pleasure, our health and our hearts this Valentine’s Day. All are welcome. Tickets are free to University of Iowa students, $6.50 for the general public.


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